We have a wonderful guest post today by John Ames, author of the coming of age novel, Adventures in Nowhere. John is no stranger to writing and he certainly isn’t going to tell someone how to interpret someone else’s words as that’s what his guest post is about today. Enjoy!
By John Ames
It’s fashionable today to embrace the idea that creative writing means only what the reader thinks it means. No person, especially some dry old professor, has the right to tell any other person what a poem, story, or novel adds up to. After all, how can we be arrogant enough to know what a writer has in mind?
I was talking one day with a nationally-known professor of English. I mentioned casually that a student had come up to me after class and said, “We spent a week on ‘A Narrow Fellow in the Grass’ in my high school English course, and it was never mentioned that the poem is about a snake!” I wasn’t sure whether he was irritated with his high school teacher for not so informing him or with me for having the audacity to interpret the poem for him. I told the professor that I couldn’t fathom how anyone could teach that poem without bringing up the subject matter. To my surprise, he said, “I wouldn’t either.” I asked him what approach he took.
“Well,” he replied, “let’s say the student thought it was about a garden hose. I’d ask him to go with that and see where it led him.” I assumed the professor was hoping that the student would find his way to the correct solution, and I said so.
“No,” he answered. “How would you grade a paper that concluded the poem was about a garden hose? “ I asked. “That’s a delicate thing,” he answered. “A lot would have to do with the student’s sincerity.” I could hardly believe what I was hearing. “What do you think the poem is about,” I asked. “I don’t know,” he replied.
This was a man with a doctorate in English and a long list of published papers who was unwilling to commit to the stance that “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” is about a snake.
“Well,” I said, “if there is no objective way to know what Emily Dickinson had in mind when she wrote “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” we might as well have poems written by computers.”
“I’ve said it so many times,” he replied.
I bring this up because so many writers are much too vague when readers ask them what their writing means. “It means whatever you think it means,” is a common response, which I think is meant to be generous but is actually counterproductive and in most cases untrue. All writing is a communication from a writer to a reader, and I don’t think that writers should be shy about making that clear. Writers don’t have to fully interpret their poems or stories, but surely they can provide a few hints to help readers toward a better understanding of the work and to underscore that there is a correct way to go. If we aren’t willing to do that, then we might as well have computers do our writing because we are devaluing ourselves and running the risk that a bunch of readers will conclude that we have written about a garden hose.
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides —
You may have met Him — did you not
His notice sudden is —
The Grass divides as with a Comb —
A spotted shaft is seen —
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on —
He likes a Boggy Acre
A Floor too cool for Corn —
Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot —
I more than once at Noon
Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled and was gone —
Several of Nature’s People
I know, and they know me —
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality —
But never met this Fellow,
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And Zero at the Bone —
You can visit John’s website at www.johnamesauthor.com.